Costly UCF mistake opens door for Duke

Before Zion Williamson’s iron-willed driving layup, RJ Barrett’s timely put-back and Aubrey Dawkins’ physics-defying missed tip-in, there was another play in Sunday’s Duke-UCF classic that changed the course of history.

It was a play that will haunt UCF players and coaches for years anytime they think of the seismic upset that slipped through their fingers. It was a play that also will be hailed as the turning point in Duke’s NCAA tournament should the top-ranked Blue Devils go on to capture the national title.

Just under two minutes remained in Duke’s 77-76 victory when UCF’s Dayon Griffin corralled the rebound of Tre Jones’ missed 3-pointer. Burning clock would have been the prudent move with the Golden Knights ahead by four points, but Griffin saw an opportunity for a two-on-one fast break and couldn’t resist trying to seize it.

Griffin dribbled down the left side of the floor. Dawkins sped down the right side. Only Barrett stood between either of them and the basket. The UCF bench stood in anticipation when Griffin lobbed a pinpoint pass to Dawkins … only to watch the senior guard fumble the ball in midair and fail to finish the alley-oop.

Dawkins’ miscue might not have been that damaging had it not created a scoring opportunity for Duke at the other end of the floor. Barrett threw an outlet pass ahead to Cam Reddish, who curled around a screen and buried a right-wing 3-pointer to complete a five-point swing.

Suddenly Duke’s deficit wasn’t six. It was one.

That it was Dawkins who failed to finish the alley-oop is especially cruel. Without Dawkins, UCF isn’t even in striking distance at that point, let alone in position to practically put Duke away.

On a night that had been hyped as Williamson versus Tacko Fall — college basketball’s most explosive dunker against the sport’s tallest shot blocker — Dawkins somewhat stole away attention from that sideshow. The son of UCF coach Johnny Dawkins scored 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting and made every big play the Golden Knights needed before the botched alley-oop.

“Aubrey was terrific,” Johnny Dawkins said. “He’s capable of having moments like that, and he had one tonight on one of the biggest stages you could have it on. He couldn’t have picked a better time for that for us. I thought that really helped us throughout the game, his ability to knock down shots, open some other things up for us.”

Central Florida’s Aubrey Dawkins (15) shoots a three-pointer over Duke’s Tre Jones (3) during the first half of a first round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Columbia, S.C. Sunday, March 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

Of course, Dawkins’ miscue isn’t the only mistake UCF made during the final two minutes to derail its upset bid.

There was the missed boxout after a Williamson 3-point attempt rimmed out that enabled Duke’s Javin DeLaurier to corral the offensive rebound. That prevented Duke from having to foul intentionally to extend the game and paved the way for Williamson to score at the rim and draw Tacko Fall’s fifth foul.

There was the other missed boxout on Williamson’s ensuing errant free throw that resulted in Barrett’s go-ahead put-back. (And, yes, it did look like Barrett got away with a bit of a shove in Dawkins’ back on that one.)

And there was UCF’s two misses on its ill-fated final possession, the first being B.J. Taylor’s off-balance runner and the second was Dawkins’ failed tip-in that spun tantalizingly around the rim before coming out.

But while all those plays were crucial, it’s the memory of the lob that will surely sting the longest for UCF. Instead of a dunk that would have all but sealed a bracket-shaking upset and the biggest victory in program history, the ball slipped through Dawkins’ fingers and history changed as a result.

Eternal heartache for UCF. Disaster averted for Duke.

“We spent all this time trying to get to this stage, and obviously we want our journey to continue,” Aubrey Dawkins said. “When you invest this much in it, it breaks your heart.”

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